Frugal Because We Want To Be

by Frugal Babe on December 11, 2008

I got a comment today on my post about our financial goals that I thought was worth further discussion.  Dave wrote:

“I don’t know much about you but it seems like you folks have plenty of money. Anyone know of a blog directed toward the working poor? Somebody making / surviving on $30K a year?”

Dave, you make a very good point, and one that I’ve thought about a lot as I write a blog focused on frugal living.  But as as recently as 2004 we were indeed living on about $30K.  That year, our savings amounted to $100/month into our IRAs and that was it.  We were frugal out of necessity.  When we found out that my husband would need $5000 worth of dental work that year, I took a second job at the library, shelving books for $8/hour to pay off the dental bill.

When I started this blog in 2006, we were still in debt and although our income had increased a little beyond $30K, it still wasn’t huge.  Over the last couple years our income has increased further, but our lifestyle has stayed about the same.  Yes, we could spend more money now.  But we choose not to, because we’d rather save for the future than spend everything we have right now.

We’re actually earning a pretty typical income for two college-educated professionals in our 30s.  But we’re still in the same modest house we bought six years ago (we plan to stay, and are paying off the mortgage as quickly as possible).  We still drive cars that were made when nobody outside of Arkansas had ever heard of Bill Clinton.  We buy all of our clothing in thrift stores (and rarely shop at all, even at thrift stores).  I think the last time we went out to eat was in September when my in-laws were visiting.  Yes, we have options – we could choose to drive new cars, upgrade our house, shop at the mall, and go to Starbucks.  But instead we’d rather pretend that we still earn $30K and save the rest.

In order to make our goals happen next year, our family of three will have to keep our monthly expenses to about $2500, including the mortgage and health insurance, which amount to about $1500 together.  I feel confident that we can do it, because we’re used to living frugally.  Being forced to make do on very little money in the past taught us that we really don’t need a lot of money at all.  Now that we have more money, we’re able to give to causes that matter to us and save for the future, since we’re still perfectly happy with our frugal life.

I remember when I started blogging, I read NCN’s blog and was amazed at how much money his yearly savings amounted to.  I remember thinking that he was saving nearly as much as we were earning in a year.  And that served as a huge motivator for me.   The nice thing about being committed to living frugally is that if you work hard and focus on increasing your salary, chances are it will go up as the years go by.  But although the cost of living will increase too, frugal habits will mean that your expenses won’t increase as much as those of the people around you.  I’m sure that people see me pulling out of the thrift store parking lot in my 91 Civic and assume that I’m poor.  And that’s fine with me.

I’ll open the rest of Dave’s comment up to my readers:  what are your favorite blogs written by people who are working to stretch small incomes?  And what about your own experiences – have you found that frugal habits you developed years ago have stayed with you even though your income might have grown to the point where you don’t have to be frugal anymore?  Anyone finding that well-ingrained frugal habits are helping them weather the current recession?  I think this is a great topic for discussion – are you frugal because you want to be, or because you have to be?  For us it started out as a necessity, and then just became a way of life.  My guess is that a lot of other people find the same thing – once they get used to living frugally, they notice that big TVs and shopping at the mall and cars and fancy houses no longer hold much appeal.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

AD December 11, 2008 at 4:31 pm

We’re in the same income bracket as you.

We started off the year with about $10000 of credit card debt, a couple of years of car payments on one vehicle, and about $6,000 on a motorcycle loan.

Luckily we had an epiphany, and we worked hard to pay off all debt (except for the land we bought, on which we plan to build, but even that is being paid off quickly). We sold the bike. When one car was totaled, we took $8000 of insurance money and used it to pay off debt, becoming a one-car couple.

We chose to be frugal so that we could pay it all off this year, and we’re sticking with it because I like to see the money go into our savings now.

I used to buy things to make me happy. Then, one day I realized I WAS happy. So I just had to change my consumer habits.

Kelly December 11, 2008 at 4:55 pm

Good post. I noticed that comment and was wondering if you were going to respond to it. In our house, we need to be frugal, and need to be more frugal at that. I currently stay home with my daughter and babysit for a friend a couple days a week. We are now talking about me maybe getting a very part time job as well because my MIL is retired and willing to watch my daughter a couple hours a week for nothing. My husband makes good money and we could more than get by, as well as save a bunch if it weren’t for our consumer debt. I think we are just now starting to really get it. I want to be able to look back in a couple years, much like you are, and say “remember when we had to be frugal and now it is just a way of life.” I hope to get there because really, life isn’t about things, it is about living!

Lisa December 11, 2008 at 5:04 pm

I am a new reader, and I’m very much enjoying your posts!

We have only lived on the “frugal because we need to be” side of things, income wise. But, I also think we are choosing to be frugal because we *want* to be – we could also (and more easily) choose to incur massive consumer debt. Despite the fact that we “need” to be frugal, I have definitely noticed a huge change in our preferences and desires. While I do think our spending habits would change some if we had more money to spend (for instance, we’d love to travel more…), I don’t think that our lifestyle would change incredibly – we really do enjoy living simply!

Karen December 11, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Is $30K a year really “working poor”? My husband and I don’t make much more than that, and we certainly don’t feel poor. We’re pretty frugal, though, I guess. Huh.

neimanmarxist December 11, 2008 at 6:04 pm

just out of curiosity, why do i now have to do math to comment? i hope i am counted among the intellectual elite! in any case, this was a good post. What struck me was your remark that people probably see you in your car and think of you as poor. i think it’s really interesting that people whose lifestyles don’t expand to occupy their income are immediately assumed to have some kind of financial problems! my husband’s colleagues are always commenting about our old car (though we could afford I suppose to get another one. we could certainly get a loan which is how they got their cars!) and when we go out to dinner with people they try to pay for us. but we’re not poor! we just don’t spend our free time at the mall!

FrugalBabe December 11, 2008 at 6:22 pm

@neimanmarxist: The math is because the old spam catcher I was using had a glitch and wasn’t running properly with the new version of wordpress. The intellectual elite comment is a joke – most blogs explain why you have to do the math, I just assumed everyone would have seen it on other blogs by now.

I know what you mean about how people assume you’re poor just because you don’t spend all of your income and/or go into debt. I’d prefer to be comfortable and out of debt rather than be perceived as wealthy by driving a car owned by the bank!

frugalscholar December 11, 2008 at 6:35 pm

I have lived a frugal life beginning in grad school (sal=$3000/yr) to now, almost 30 years later. The habits you develop will help you through an increasing income.

See my blog for a post on graduate student poverty and other frugal life stories: frugalscholar.blogspot.com

Sandy December 11, 2008 at 7:26 pm

Great post and well said. You have to start somewhere. I hope that in two years from now I will get those comments on my blog.

Mrs. Accountability December 11, 2008 at 8:31 pm

Like Sandy said, I hope to be where Frugal Babe within a couple of years. When I get bummed out that we accrued more debt due to my husband’s business, I remember and am encouraged by FB’s posts where she mentions they went through a time where they had to use their credit cards to survive. But they did it and succeeded! We can, too!

NorCalRN December 12, 2008 at 3:15 am

I have to say that for sometimes, it takes just as much effort to NOT spend our “extra” money as it ever was to keep within a frugal budget when we were “poor”. We live in Silicon Valley and have a very high cost of living but made it ok for almost 6 years on 1 income while I went to school. Now that we have 2 very good incomes…. I still feel guilty spending money! I continue to have the “poor” complex, even when we have money in the bank. We are trying to build up a large enough emergency fund to pay our mortgage ($$$$!!) for a year if needed, and it is hard sometimes to stay frugal, especially with the holidays here. I guess that’s where the “poor” complex helps me.

neimanmarxist December 12, 2008 at 7:54 am

i figured it was something like that. i thought the i.e. comment was funny! anyway, again, really enjoyed this post. it’s true that the trappings of a spendy life really lose their appeal when you discover after being frugal for a while how little they had to do with your actual happiness.

Dave Lucas December 12, 2008 at 8:08 am

Thanks for responding to my comment (and to your readers for their comments) – $30K here in New York State isn’t much: after taxes and $9000 in annual health insurance premiums for a family of four (and that’s with a portion of every premium paid for by me employer) I am left with about $21K, so every penny counts!

L@spillingbuckets December 12, 2008 at 8:22 am

Dave,

I live in NY (Rochester) and also only make about $30,000 a year. (a little more but much less than $40k.) I know what you mean about having so little left at the end of all the taxes and everything… but we also are used to a frugal lifestyle and have many alternative income streams to help defer expenses. Afterall, every penny counts. ;-)

Tight Fisted Miser December 12, 2008 at 11:17 am

I’ll plug myself as a blogger with a low income. I’ll only make about $12,000 this year. I only have to support myself. If I had to support three others than 30k a year wouldn’t be a lot.

Alysha December 12, 2008 at 5:28 pm

I am a new reader also, and am really enjoying reading your posts. I finished school last year and am working to pay off all of the debt I have aquired from it. So I am looking to start living a more frugal life to pay off that debt but also save for the future and perhaps learn some good life long spending habits along the way!

Jessica December 12, 2008 at 6:12 pm

I really enjoy this blog. I make an above average income, yet I find that the more I have made in life, the more I have learned to spend. I am trying to get more in savings and it is inspirational to me to see people who do it all the time. I have decided to take on sponsoring a less fortunate individual and I have to say that has changed how I look at money. Now I think…that small amount of money I want to spend on a coffee could feed someone for the day. It really changes your perspective.

Becca December 12, 2008 at 6:20 pm

We are always strapped for cash it seems, and we declared over 50k on our taxes last year. Of course, when you take out the mortgage of over $1k a month and all the other necessities it ends up being not a lot. And I was working two jobs, though I don’t have much to show for it. It does get really frustrating when I think about how hard I work and how much I want to be out of debt, and yet how little I have left at the end of the month. We put our savings on hold, with only a “baby” emergency fund so we can pay off debt. We’ve made it a long way, from $15k in CCs to about $7k. But there is so far to go….So yeah, frugal living is a necessity for us. I do enjoy it, but if I could, I would definitely increase our standard of living just a wee bit, mostly in the food department. We aren’t restaurant people, we just like good food cooked at home. We will see what happens when the baby is born in Feb though. I’m hoping it doesn’t come down to me quitting my job, but we really want me to be home with her, even if I am working from home. Things have a way of working themselves out though right?

Sherry December 14, 2008 at 10:04 am

If I had to choose only one frugality blog to read, I would choose Frugal Babe. I think it works for all levels of frugality. I love that the words are all yours;you do not borrow from other sources just to fill space. Keep up the good work!

FrugalBabe December 14, 2008 at 11:52 am

@Sherry: Wow, thanks! I really enjoy writing it, so it’s nice to know that people like reading it.

Early Retirement Extreme December 14, 2008 at 7:20 pm

I saved a sizable fraction (around 75%) of my money during grad school (about $20k/year after tax).

I wrote a post on how to get wealthy on minimum wage once: http://earlyretirementextreme.com/2008/01/how-to-get-wealthy-on-minimum-wage.html

Also, I’m currently running a 30 day program on how to get annual expenses to about $6000/person.

NCN December 17, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Hey, thanks for the mention… I too choose to be frugal, and live below our means…

When I started blogging, we were BROKE and in debt. Now, we are debt free, and being debt free frees up extra money for saving and investing…

Rock on,
NCN

Ellen December 20, 2008 at 11:25 am

I don’t think of $30,000 as working poor. We make about $15,000/yr for a family of 4 and don’t really think of ourselves as poor – maybe economically challenged :)

My best advice – eliminate all your debt. Our only debt is our mortgage which will be paid off in 5 years.

For those interested in living on less, I highly recommend the book The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn.

Dave Lucas December 22, 2008 at 7:34 am

Ellen – Seriously, I have NO DEBT – no credit loans or car payments or credit cards – my take home pay of $701 every two weeks breaks down this way: (1st check: $600 rent – the rest for groceries – 2nd check $300 for electric and heat, $29 phone, $9 internet, $36 bus pass for work, $34.99 monthly cellphone, the rest for laundry, groceries, and a tiny bit o’ savings

Frugal Babe December 22, 2008 at 11:57 am

@Dave Lucas: You’re right Dave – $30,000 doesn’t leave much left over once you pay for the basics. But nice work in living within your means anyway, and not going into debt. The fact that you’re able to save money – no matter how little – means that you’re on a good financial path.

Donna Freedman December 31, 2008 at 9:43 am

I wrote an article for MSN Money called “Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year,” about being middle-aged, living in a big city and deciding to work only part-time while attending a university. Well, some folks wrote to MSN and said, “Come on, this is a scam. NO ONE could live on $12,000 a year.”
How out of touch with are some people???
When I was hired part-time to write the Smart Spending blog, I didn’t make many changes to my life. Frankly, I see no reason to spend more money just because I have more than I thought I’d have.
That’s me, the one buying the marked-down meat, making jam from the plums a neighbor invited me to pick, stopping at the bread outlet on the way home from school (by bus), soaking pinto beans, getting “new” jeans at the thrift store, borrowing books from the library, picking and freezing the blackberries that grow wild all over Seattle.
I *am* frugal because I want to be. To me, it just makes sense. From reading the comments, it seems to make sense to others as well.

kiki January 7, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Hubby and I are also frugal because we want to be. We don’t have boatloads of money, but we could go without clipping coupons and buying some things second hand. But making those small sacrifices allow us to have more time together, and more free income to do other things we want to do. Wasteful is wasteful, no matter what income bracket you are in. I think that people with different household budgets and levels of frugality can really learn from each other.

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